Harnessing the Transformative Power of Art with Mena Mark Hanna, Incoming Head of Spoleto Festival USA
Festival's General Director designate brings extensive musical experience and scholarship to role—and a firm belief in art's potential to bridge differences
For the first time in over three decades, Spoleto Festival USA will have a new general director. In July, the performing arts festival announced that Mena Mark Hanna will take over the position outgoing director Nigel Redden has held for 35 years. Hanna’s move to Charleston in October will follow his seven-year tenure as Professor of Musicology and Composition at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin.
“I’m deeply, deeply humbled and privileged,” Hanna says of the recent appointment. “I’m coming to Spoleto with an open mind to learn and engage with the artists, the staff, the people of Charleston and the Southeast. The people who work at the festival are real caretakers of this extremely special, beautiful event that almost feels like it’s lightning caught in a bottle.”
Born in London to Egyptian parents, Hanna moved to the US with his family as a young child. “I really was into music at a pretty early stage,” he says. “I was a boy soprano in the Philadelphia Boys Choir. In my own kind of self-mythologizing of it, I was a diva boy soprano and when my voice changed, my whole world kind of crumbled,” Hanna says laughingly. Thankfully, he would face little difficulty in finding other outlets for his musical interests—including piano, composition, and sacred music.
“I was also a cantor in the Coptic Church,” Hanna says. “This is a very old, oral tradition—that is to say, it is not notated. It is a tradition that relies on rote learning. You go into a long class and you repeat these long, sort of serpentine, melismatic phrases of chant.”
Hanna’s wide-ranging musical activities as a youth not only broadened his perspective, but also shaped the course of his career.
“So, I had these two sides—I had this kind of Western musical upbringing in the boys’ choir, in piano lessons, in composing. And then I had this other side of me which was this strange, esoteric, ancient chant tradition that adherents to the Coptic faith claim goes back to the Pharaohs—the music itself, not the beliefs. So, this kind of dichotomy had kind of captured me and captured my imagination,” Hanna says.
Hanna further navigated that dichotomy through his undergraduate studies at Temple University’s Boyer College of Music. “It was really my final year there that I started to really experiment, I think successfully, in interpolating Coptic chant into Western music,” he says of his time at Temple. “And this fascination carried on into my master’s and Ph.D. which I did at Oxford in the UK.”
Despite his research interests, Hanna decided not to pursue a career totally within academia. Instead, he went on to work at the Houston Grand Opera for a few years, where he was eventually named assistant artistic director. In 2014, Hanna moved to Berlin to become the founding dean of the city’s Barenboim-Said Akademie, an institution named for pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim and literary critic Edward Said.
Said’s foundational work in postcolonial studies and his book Orientalism (1978) have been a major influence on Hanna’s own scholarship as a musicologist. “It’s a book and it’s work that I’ve taught in my classes at the Barenboim-Said Akademie, and it’s also some research that I’ve done,” Hanna says. “You know, studying how colonialism works with Western classical music and what it means to have all of this music—you know, the height of Western classical music—kind of being produced as a product of a European cultural hegemony at the height of the 19th century colonial project.”
When he steps into his role as General Director of Spoleto Festival USA, Hanna will have a new opportunity to implement his artistic ideas—ideas formed both through his research and his experience of recent events.
“The New York Times article described me as an outspoken music scholar—and I don’t have a problem with that headline—but I think that my perspective is slightly different now after the last few years—certainly after Covid, and even more after Black Lives Matter, because I want as much as possible to find ways to use this art form and use human expression in a way to kind of bridge differences,” Hanna says. “To harness that transformative power of art to bridge differences. And so, even though my background is in this study, I think that gives me the tools to understand where the overlaps are. What does it mean to sort of recontextualize the canon—to rethink Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms? To rethink opera?”
Hanna acknowledges that his scholarship and interests sometimes meet with a wary response. “When people start talking about postcolonialism, or the study of postcolonialism in music, or talking about the canon, I think there is a fear of erasure,” he says. “And I don’t think anyone is really interested in erasing anyone. We’re not interested in erasing Beethoven. We’re not interested in erasing Bach. I mean I absolutely love that music. That music is a cornerstone of our heritage. But I want to see ways where that music can be pushed to overlap. Where those distinctions can be blurred. Where the lines can be blurred between Bach or between Monteverdi and between Gospel music, for example.”
For Hanna, the varied arts disciplines and music styles represented at Spoleto Festival offer a unique opportunity to explore the kind of artistic overlap which he regards as so transformative.
“The reason why Spoleto is such a unique place is because that’s already kind of built into the DNA of the festival,” Hanna says. “Its prominence is predicated upon its multidisciplinary-ness. It’s a festival that has really had for a long time this ability to bring all of these different disciplines and mediums together and, in the words of Nigel Redden, through this kind of catalytic affect, smash it all together and create something new or something exciting.”
Beyond the festival itself, Hanna finds inspiration in the city of Charleston and its culture. “I’m enthralled by the city, and by its history, and by its beauty,” he says. “I’m extremely excited about the food culture and how you have built into this food—especially if you go further into the Lowcountry and you look at the cuisine of the Gullah-Geechee community—you have food that really hearkens back to West Africa. And there, built into that food, you also have history—a history that one needs to reckon with with Charleston being, you know, the historic slave center of the United States.”
“But you also have future,” Hanna says, drawing a link between the region’s food culture and the arts. “You have an ability to build communion through this. And that’s one of the exciting things. I see it happening with food in Charleston and I think there are opportunities for it to happen in the performing arts as well. So it’s a very exciting place.”